By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 3, 2006
U.S. commanders used appropriate force in taking down a safe house in Iraq during a March 15 military raid that led to the deaths of as many as a dozen civilians, according to the results of an investigation announced in Baghdad yesterday.
Officials moved quickly to tamp down allegations of a civilian massacre in the town of Ishaqi, near Balad, after a video broadcast by the BBC this week appeared to show that several civilians, including children, were shot to death in the nighttime raid.
The military scrambled to announce the investigation's findings amid rising international furor about another alleged mass slaying, in Haditha, on Nov. 19. Several U.S. Marines are under investigation into whether they shot as many as two dozen civilians in their homes and in a taxi.
The alleged slayings have increased tensions between U.S. forces and the Iraqis amid claims that the military has used excessive force while fighting insurgents. Military commanders acknowledged yesterday that frustrations and stresses related to battling the insurgency may be causing a small number of U.S. troops to fail to follow proper procedures.
Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, spokesman for Multi-National Force-Iraq, issued a statement last night saying that investigators had found no wrongdoing in the Ishaqi raid and that the ground force commander "properly followed the rules of engagement as he necessarily escalated the use of force until the threat was eliminated." Caldwell said troops captured a Kuwaiti-born al-Qaeda cell leader -- Ahmad Abdallah Muhammad Na'is al-Utaybi -- and killed an Iraqi bombmaker and recruiter during the coordinated raid.
The troops took direct fire from the building upon their arrival, he said. They responded first with small arms and then by calling in helicopters and, later, close air-support, essentially destroying the structure, Caldwell said in the statement. Troops then entered the building and found the Iraqi bombmaker's body, along with three dead "noncombatants" and an estimated nine "collateral deaths."
"Allegations that the troops executed a family living in this safe house, then hid the alleged crimes by directing an air strike, are absolutely false," Caldwell said.
The Ishaqi incident gained notice this week in part because of allegations that Marines patrolling in Haditha, northwest of Baghdad, shot the Iraqis in their homes after a roadside bomb killed a Marine. The Marines initially reported that 15 civilians died as a result of the bomb, and a homicide investigation did not begin until nearly four months later.
Top military officials are still working to determine why the initial reports out of Haditha were false and whether the Marine chain of command failed to properly examine the case. The Marines and the Defense Department have not offered public comments on the details of the Haditha case, citing the ongoing investigations.
A third case, involving a separate group of Marines, could lead to murder charges at Camp Pendleton in California. In that case, Marines allegedly dragged an Iraqi civilian out of his home and executed him. A defense attorney for one of the Marines had predicted that charges would be filed by yesterday, but Camp Pendleton officials said they had not been filed as of last night.
Caldwell cautioned against lumping the alleged incidents together, noting that they are entirely different cases and should be examined separately.
Brig. Gen. Donald M. Campbell Jr., chief of staff of Multi-National Corps-Iraq, said yesterday morning in a briefing from Baghdad that the allegations of wrongdoing at Haditha and elsewhere are "disturbing" and "frustrating" but are not representative of the work "99.9 percent" of U.S. troops are doing in Iraq.
Campbell said that it is "very, very tragic" when Iraqi civilians are injured or killed, and that U.S. commanders take such incidents very seriously. He also said that the nature of the Iraq war, with an enemy that is often hard to identify, can place enormous strain on U.S. forces.
"When you're in the combat theater dealing with enemy combatants who don't abide by the law of war, who do acts of indecency, soldiers become stressed, they become fearful," Campbell said. "It's very difficult to determine, in some cases, on this battlefield who is a combatant and who is a civilian. It doesn't excuse the acts that have occurred, and we're going to look into them. But I would say it's stress, fear, isolation, and in some cases they're just upset. They see their buddies getting blown up on occasion and they could snap."
The series of alleged cases of military misconduct in Iraq has stirred concern within the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill in large part because of the message such incidents send to Iraqis, whose top leaders have criticized the way the United States has treated civilians during the war. Campbell's assessment that troops can "snap" when faced with emotional losses within their unit is one of the reasons the military is giving troops on the ground a new round of "core values" training.
Members of Congress and President Bush have said that they are troubled by the allegations. Congressional aides said yesterday that they are waiting to learn more facts about the cases after receiving general briefings in recent weeks. One Republican aide said the cases are "a big public relations problem" and could have "a direct impact on the prosecution of the war in Iraq and the willingness of the new government to work with the U.S. to achieve a stable country."
Michael E. O'Hanlon, a defense expert at the Brookings Institution, said he fears that there is a gradual decline in trust between U.S. forces and the Iraqis. He said the tactics troops have employed during the war are worrisome in a broader sense.
"A lot of civilian casualties in Iraq are due to American bullets, and that raises questions about whether our tactics are appropriate and smart," O'Hanlon said. "Sometimes you're killing four innocent people in order to kill two insurgents, and we've used force in ways that have carried that risk almost every day of the war."
Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, has indicated that he would like to hold open hearings into the Haditha incident as soon as possible without prejudicing the ongoing criminal investigations, according to his spokesman, John Ullyot.